Similar to the NASCAR Xfinity Series dynamic from the day before, the remaining Cup Series contenders know exactly what they need to do next weekend at Martinsville because the math is pretty simple for everyone currently on the outside looking in.
Christopher Bell continues to be the most clutch playoff driver of the NextGen era with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway that locks him into the Cup Series championship race for the second consecutive year.
The math is simple because it’s extremely likely that those currently on the outside will either need a tremendous amount of misfortune from Ryan Blaney or to outright win the penultimate race of the season themselves.
Denny Hamlin broke a tie rod after hitting the wall while racing Ryan Blaney for second in the closing laps. At the same time, regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. was suffering an engine failure that leaves both 17 back.
It’s not impossible, but it’s really dang close.
Tyler Reddick can points race with Blaney straight up but at 10 back, he probably needs some help if he is unable to make it to Victory Lane at the legendary short track. Chris Buescher, at 43 points back, has the clearest goals of everyone involved and he said it best himself.
“Go to the race track, be fast (and) win.”
Updated playoff grid
Kyle Larson Advanced
Christopher Bell Advanced
William Byron +30
Ryan Blaney +10
Tyler Reddick -10
Denny Hamlin -17
Martin Truex Jr. -17
Chris Buescher -43
Christopher Bell, advanced into the championship race
Christopher Bell, as the winner of the race, is obviously the big winner here. He was so dejected after coming up just short to Larson at Las Vegas by fractions of a second. He called it ‘his chance to make it to Phoenix’ because he was especially pessimistic about Homestead.
The southernmost NASCAR race track just hadn’t been kind to him at the highest level, despite having a layout that seemed complementary to his skillset. Sure, it took the misfortune that befell Larson, but Bell also was poised to strike when given the opportunity. Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens have been relentless the past two years in the most consequential races. They are going to race for a championship completely indifferent to the drama set to unfold around them next weekend.
Ryan Blaney, from -17 to +10 to the cutline
The Penske No. 12 team really wanted that one. You could tell based on the language from driver Ryan Blaney to spotter Josh T. Williams and crew chief Jonathan Hassler. They resented how Denny Hamlin raced them before his crash and just how hard Blaney was willing to drive in every corner.
Hassler even had to tell Blaney in the final laps to take it easy running second because they now had a double-digit points advantage to the elimination cutoff. Hamlin and Truex falling out of the race early, along with scoring a race high 18 stage points, was very, very good to their chances of making the championship race.
And considering how he must have felt after his temporary disqualification after Las Vegas, what a whirlwind of emotion this must be as they inch closer to the first final four appearance for Blaney in his career.
“I hope we can perform,” Blaney said. “We’ve had two good weeks in a row at Vegas and here. We have had solid weekends, so hopefully we can do it again next week. It is nice to come in here a decent chunk down and then go to Martinsville in the positive. We just have to perform. We have to run well.”
Tyler Reddick, from -16 to -10 to the cutline
It was a net positive day, even if the No. 45 team is going to want some of the missed opportunities on stage points back, scoring eight of them along with a third-place overall finish. Reddick finished seventh in both stages and (not) picking up a position or two along the way in each segment could be the difference come Sunday at Martinsville.
“Yeah, it was a frustrating day,” Reddick said. “I was really hoping we were going to get a little more out of that. The finish was what we needed, but we didn’t run as well as we wanted to all day, which was the disappointing part. I don’t know, it’s been a gripe of mine ever since we went to the composite body on the Cup side.
“Everyone runs the fence, and there’s no penalty when you have a mistake and hit the wall. Everyone just ran up there and hit it all day long. Gotta be more willing to take that risk in this car as there’s no penalty.”
William Byron, moved to +30 to the cutline
The top-seeded driver had another weekend where he just managed the race that was presented to him. There were various stages where Byron looked capable of winning but probably didn’t have the pure speed of Larson, Blaney and Hamlin. Instead, he scored 16 stage points and finished fourth overall and now just has to avoid a major issue at Martinsville.
If Byron can position himself to score at least 10 stage points, it would take a lot of scenarios to boot him from the championship race come the end of Martinsville.
“We’re solid, right,” Byron said. “I think today is really indicative of where our season has been where we can run top-3 or 4 all day and we just missed that little bit of explosiveness to get out front, the short run speed to hang on. Hopefully, next week, we have something closer to that next week.”
Denny Hamlin, brushed the wall and broke tie rod
This is how quickly things can go wrong in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamlin was racing for the win at Homestead, having collected 12 stage points, and then he was in the wall and doomed to a 30th-place finish. That’s a 27-point swing in real time.
The 11 team still isn’t sure as of press time what broke but it largely leaves them needing to win Martinsville to continue a season that Hamlin has been convinced all year would result in a championship race appearance. He was basically in disbelief upon being released from infield care.
“If I have to win, we’re going to go try and win,” Hamlin said. “That’s what we go to the race track to do every week and if our season ends because a mechanical, it is what it is. It’s part of the format.”
Martin Truex Jr, suffered a mechanical failure
Similar to Hamlin, an entire season could have been undone in a single moment for Martin Truex, but this one just seems like the continuation of an entire playoff long trend. Truex has only finished better than 15th during the playoffs once and that was last week at Vegas but continued to advance thanks to the litany of playoff points accumulated during the regular season.
Simply put, Truex no longer had a margin of error to suffer the kinds of misfortune or performance woes that had been mitigated all autumn. It leaves him, like his teammate, likely needing to win at Martinsville and that’s got to be a bracket-busting outcome for so many watching around the country.
Chris Buescher, falls to -43 below the cutline
The past two weeks have been a strange sequence of races for Buescher and the No. 17 team because their teammates, the previously eliminated Brad Keselowski and the No. 6 bunch, have continued to show race contending speed. The 17 have not.
It leaves them scratching their heads and also needing to win at Martinsville.
“Yeah, that was a brutal day,” Buescher said. “We worked hard on this Fastenal Mustang and got it better. We started off the race really tight and went a lap down and didn’t have any opportunities to get that back. The cautions didn’t fall at the right time for us and about the time they would start the green flag cycles something would happen. We couldn’t quite catch the break we needed. We did find some good speed and I feel like on equal tires there at the end we would have been able to move up quite a bit. It just wasn’t the case.
“We had 10 laps or something on tires and had to finish out. We were still able to get to the last four or five cars that were on fresh tires, so I know we were a lot better than we had been and were making good progress, it was just too late. Too late in the day to make anything happen.”
Chase Elliott, must win at Martinsville for his own reasons
Lost in all the talk of the NASCAR Cup Series drivers championship battle is that Chase Elliott has continued to advance in the owner’s championship. The No. 9 car is in the Round of 8 where Truex’s No. 19 is not. But Elliott simply has not performed the past two weeks. They were objectively awful at Homestead and survived to 15th with no stage points. At -77 below the cutline, Elliott needs to win at all else to advance in the championship battle that actually pays the bills.
Kyle Larson, DNFs after drilling the sand barrel
‘Thank goodness we won last week,’ is surely the narrative surrounding the Hendrick 5 team. On one hand, Larson stuffing the sand drum on a day where they had the car to beat has to feel deflating and self-defeatist. It feels like lost momentum.
But it really doesn’t matter. Larson would take the green flag at Martinsville and immediately park his car and still be locked into the championship race. Larson, who so frequently lives on the edge of brilliance and catastrophe is probably better served to have gotten this out of his system before the finale anyway.
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.